The electricity sector in Australia is undergoing a period of enormous change, driven by large scale rises in energy prices, consideration of the green agenda and the need to accommodate altering consumer demand. In order to consider how best to meet the energy needs of the continent for the next half century or so, CSIRO convened the Future Grid Forum; a diverse range of stakeholders who all have an interest in how electricity sourcing and distribution will be delivered in the future. These included members of the community, industry representatives and government experts whose input was aggregated and summarised to produce four potential models for future electricity supply and demand. It is unlikely that any one scenario will ultimately be realised. Rather, combinations of features from all four models will probably be integrated into a diverse and wide-ranging solution to Australia’s electricity needs. The four modeled scenarios are detailed below.
Set and Forget Scenario
In this model, consumers have a relatively small part to play in deciding the method of electricity generation they prefer, when it is available and how much it will cost. Households will be expected to sign up to voluntary agreements on limiting the power they receive, perhaps during peak times of the day or when a certain amount of power has been used. The limitations would be automatically applied centrally, with systems which demand large amounts of power (such as air conditioning or central heating) automatically set to alter their output when the pre-agreed threshold was reached. The scenario sees consumer generated electricity (for example through solar panels) as playing a relatively small part in electricity production and usage, with the majority of power continuing to be made and distributed from central sources.
If you are already a consumer who takes an active interest in shaping their energy requirements towards sustainability, perhaps through generating some (or all) of your own power, using an electric car or deliberately opting for a more energy-efficient, low consumption lifestyle, then this scenario is of particularly interest. There is potential for electricity generation to become increasingly “customer-centric”, allowing individuals far greater control over how they get and utilise their power and putting the consumer at the centre of the decision making process. This scenario could see numerous price plans and energy options available to every household, allowing micro-management of power usage and costs.
Leaving the Grid Scenario
In some ways similar to the “Prosumer” Scenario, this model looks at the potential outcome if large numbers of Australians (somewhere in the region of a third of households) managed their energy production and consumption independently, without recourse to the national grid. This is an exciting option for many home-energy enthusiasts who are keen to generate their power locally and meet their energy needs in a self-sufficient manner. This scenario is particularly attractive environmentally, with a significant increase predicted in the use of electric cars and solar power, although the majority of consumers are still expected to use centralised power sources. Advances in technology mean that batteries which are capable of storing energy for sufficient time that a continuous supply of energy can be obtained will soon be viable. Previously, many households that generate electricity through solar power have found they still need to rely on the national grid when solar generation levels are low, or conversely when there is a peak in energy consumption, for example at the start of the working day or in the evening.
Renewables Thrive Scenario
This is arguably the most radical model in the report, setting out a landscape in which the sun and wind are the primary means by which electricity is generated centrally, partnered with growing green energy production in individual households. Electric vehicles would be the primary method of transportation and stringent demand controls would be imposed centrally to limit consumption. As indicated in the “Leaving the Grid” scenario, improvements in battery technology mean that increasingly power can be generated in the fluctuating manner typical of renewable energy production, then stored until needed. These advances overcome the problem of production peaks and troughs which are commonplace when renewable sources of energy are employed to give a continuous source of electricity. It is envisaged that government and the energy companies have a key role to play in driving forward the green agenda. They will be charged with ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to facilitate the significant shift from being a nation which primary uses energy produced from fossil fuels to predominantly using energy from green sources.
Interestingly, the most expensive scenario in terms of energy cost to the consumer per year is the “Prosumer” model, with the cheapest energy predicted to be obtained by following a path towards the “Leaving the Grid” scenario. Unfortunately “leaving the grid” generally involves a higher initial investment level than the other scenarios, as the purchase and installation of solar panels, a battery and an electric vehicle is significant. These costs appear to diminish when green energy is adopted at a central level, although obviously consumers do not enjoy the same level of control over centrally produced solar power as they do over their own energy production system.
Although there is clearly no single way forward which is advantageous to all parties, this modelling exercise has produced a valuable starting point from which to begin mapping out an appropriate strategy for Australia’s electricity production and supply for the next few decades.
Post inspiration and image source: CSIRO Future Grid Forum